First off, I lied to you about getting a blog out by Monday. It just wasn’t in the cards.
Now, let’s get to the meat of this essay. The last time I posted, I wrote about how 19th-century women were perceived as purer and more moral than men. This led to at least two possibilities for their participation in the machinery of the political arena, considered to be a rough-and-tumble man’s world. First, women could be welcomed, cautiously, into politics and political action, a stance generally held by Republicans of the era. Second, they could be excluded from political activities, a position generally taken by Democrats, who were fearful that politics would sully a woman’s purity and/or challenge men’s patriarchal authority.
My character Maggie’s is modeled after 19th-century women who took their religious beliefs about loving all people, righting injustice, and practicing mercy out of their homes and into the broader culture. I love that about her.
A few weeks ago I was having lunch with a good friend of mine, a pastor with whom I had served as Christian educator. For three years, we did all manner of crazy things, including writing our own Vacation Bible School programs. While we were eating, I gave her a copy of A Good Community. She happily took it, telling me that she found Maggie to be an inspiration. Now, I am a fairly typical author, loaded with insecurities about my work, and learning how she feels about my character came as a heartening revelation.
But what is it about Maggie that is inspiring? For one thing, she has experienced tough times. She has lost homes, witnessed the death of loved ones, and even seen battle. But I think her most outstanding aspect is her big heart. In “The Dundee Cake,” a short story set in 1852, Maggie has acquired four boarders for her rooming house, none of whom can afford much to pay for room and board. Although she worries about paying her bills, she refuses to toss them out. Foolish? Probably. But loving? Yes, definitely, and she continues this throughout the series’ stories.
Maggie also shares her boarding house with an African American couple, Emily and Nate Johnson. Emily initially works as Maggie’s cook, but she and her husband move in when a fire strikes the Johnson home. This, of course, raises eyebrows in town, as the couple are more than employees, they are friends.
Throughout the series and other stories, Maggie continues to welcome others into her home regardless of color. An early example are Matilda Strong and her young daughter, Chloe, self-emancipators who arrive through the Underground Railroad (Saint Maggie).
Even when focused on personal problems, Maggie continues to welcome others. In “The Christmas Eve Visitor” short story, an illness has struck the children of the household. The last thing Maggie needs is a Jewish peddler by the name of Ira Strauss show up at her door in the middle of a blizzard. But their initial conversation is classic Maggie, as she is able to see Ira’s needs despite her concerns:
The man smiled and said in accented English, “Good evening, Madam. Would you be needing any ribbons or cloth? Some pans or pots perhaps? Or a bit of lace maybe?”
Peering into the dark beyond him, Maggie could just make out the shape of a handcart. She exclaimed, “Good heavens, sir! Whatever are you doing out on a night like this?”
“Business is business.”
“And freezing is freezing! Please do come in and take supper with us. We have some good, hot chicken soup.”
Maggie doesn’t have much to share other than a fire, chicken soup, and bread, but she’s willing to provide them. Ira came to her in the middle of a storm and might very well freeze to death if she turns him away. So, stranger or not, she invites him in.
Other welcoming acts by Maggie include feeding Confederate soldiers and caring for wounded men from both sides while in Gettysburg (Walk by Faith), temporarily housing inmates and employees when a riot consumes the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane (Seeing the Elephant) and, when a fire consumes most of the houses on Water Street, taking in black families in need of shelter (A Good Community).
So, why does Maggie do it? Simple. It’s her faith. I could be glib and say that Jesus makes her do it. However, his command to love God and love others goes further than just warm, fuzzy feelings. It is how Maggie chooses to live her life and interact with those around her.
Rosa Hamilton sums it up well in A Good Community:
“My brother was killed during the battle in North Anna. I came looking for Maggie Smith because I had nowhere else to go. She didn’t care what color I was. She just cared that I was hurting because my brother had died. She was kind to me without any reservations and invited me into her home. Now I work at Greybeal School, where I’m a teacher.” She smiled. “I always wanted to be a teacher. Mrs. Smith and the Greybeal House school gave me the chance.”
Writing Maggie has taught me oceans about welcoming others. I find myself striving to be like her.
Next blog: Maggie the 19th Century Activist: Seeking Justice
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder